A background in antiques led designer Robert Passal to a career in which he creates rich interiors that incorporate past and present, resulting in something completely new. His signature is one of an evolution, from which he designs new spaces that read as though they have been collected over time, an assemblage of passions, travels and lives well lived.
“In general, I’m more of a classicist,” Passal shares, “but I always like to put a current twist on it. I work with a lot of layers and really work to make a space feel like it has evolved over time.”
The inherent desire to create something truly original every time is evident even in the manner Passal shops for inspiration and new finds. On a recent trip to Milan, the designer visited the major fair that brought everyone to town, but he spent more time taking in the smaller perimeter fairs and local galleries.
“I like to find the smaller furniture galleries and the student designers or recent graduates who don’t have a million dollars behind them and aren’t yet jaded by what the industry is doing,” Passal says.
Passal reads the client/designer relationship as crucial to success, and works always to ensure a space is a true reflection of those who will live in it. This is where the psychology of design really comes into play. To help pull personality traits and style preferences from clients’ minds, Passal asks 25 questions. Some are a bit cheeky, while others are very telling, bringing out the details a client doesn’t always realize will be useful.
One key question asks, “Tell us about your childhood bedroom, and did you like it?”
Why is this such an important detail? “You either buy into what you grew up with or go in the complete opposite direction,” Passal answers. “It’s almost always the case.”
EVOLUTION OF DESIGNING
As Passal’s career has grown and changed, so too has his industry and the very manner in which a project evolves. In particular, he points to the Internet as a key factor in the changing face of interior design, creating an expectation for “instant gratification.”
“Twenty years ago, you were as good as your contact list, the vendors you worked with and what you had access to,” the designer notes. “Now, anybody can get their hands on anything, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to put those things together. A seasoned client will understand the value of an experienced designer.”
The Internet has also changed the manner in which the client and designer will meld their ideas, though it has not changed the fact that a picture is worth a thousand words.
“Years ago, the whole office would pull photos from magazines,” Passal recalls, commenting that they would prepare binders for living rooms, bedrooms and so on so that they could review colors and themes with clients. “Now it’s all on Pinterest. We’ll log into a board and the client does too. Photos tell a better story than a person could tell about themselves.”
THE CASE FOR COMMERCIAL
Passal’s experience has taken him in many directions, from designing for show houses and fashion boutiques to restoring a temple in New Jersey and residential projects around the world. While he does indeed have an affection for helping homeowners realize their dreams, he says commercial projects do hold a special appeal.
“Often times, in a more commercial space, you have a bit more freedom,” the designer explains. “People let go a little when they know they won’t have to live in a space. Something like a hotel is a little fantasy and a getaway. They can get out of their comfort zones.”
The variety of projects also allows the designer to show the breadth of his creativity, and residential projects have indeed stemmed from people witnessing his more public work.
“This is a true referral business,” Passal states. “Designers don’t generally advertise. It’s all about visibility and your last project, where you’ve been published and the connections you have.”
Though the design world by its very nature will continue to evolve, Passal stresses everything we see today is somehow recreated from the past. As such, an understanding of design history, a study that always has been a part of his practice, is a fundamental element to any design career.
“In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, we tore everything down here, and now everyone is sorry and trying to go back and replicate it,” Passal remarks. “A place like Paris is unscathed and so it tells a story. You go there and feel you’ve stepped back in time. Design provides a knowledge of place and of your own history. It’s very important to have that background.”
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